Session Spotlight: Karen Lynn Williams

by Ann Parker, Pima Community College, Tucson, Arizona

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Books can be very powerful, and be careful what you give your children to read!

Karen Lynn Williams

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I attended a presentation at the 2012 Tucson Festival of Books entitled “Picture Books as Global Passports” with authors Karen Lynn Williams and Monica Brown in March. Karen Lynn Williams has published 14 children’s books, many of them about children in other countries, including Africa, Haiti, and Pakistan.

Karen told us about how much her mother loved reading books with her, particularly books written about other cultures, such as Pearl Buck’s books about China. When Karen and her husband decided to move to Malawi, Africa with their baby (and first grandson), she said her mother “tentatively approached me” and asked, “What makes you want to go off so far away with your new baby?” Karen said, “My mouth fell open, and I said, ‘Don’t you know? It was those books you gave me.’ It was like a message, that she was telling me, ‘Go see these places, see these things that I have not had the opportunity to see.’” Karen said her mother was shocked and said she had no idea. Karen’s two lessons from this are, “Books can be very powerful, and be careful what you give your children to read!”

Many of Karen’s books are about children from global cultures because they reflect her experiences in living in other parts of the world. She remembers that, growing up, the books she read featured children who were just like Dick and Jane. Very few books had characters of color, and often a publisher would simply paint a child’s face brown to portray diversity in a story. Karen said she didn’t start out intending to write multicultural books but rather to create well-written books. She started writing when she lived in Malawi while working in the Peace Corps, and also took courses through the Institute of Children’s Literature.

Her first book, Galimoto, came out of her fascination with the toys that children in Malawi make out of found pieces, such as wire or bits of scrap. She originally wrote an article about these toys (called “galimotos”, the Chichewan word for cars) but couldn’t get it published, so decided to change it into a children’s book. When HarperCollins accepted the book for publication, Karen was worried that nobody in the US would be able to illustrate this book because they wouldn’t know about these amazing toys. She said, “I wanted to take my book back, because now I know I can sell a book but I didn’t want to give it away to an illustrator who didn’t know what they were doing.” However, the publisher found an illustrator, Catherine Stock, who, although she was a white South African, grew up playing with galimotos and later told Karen she wished she had written the book.

Karen knows that many believe that books should primarily be written and illustrated by people from within the culture featured in the book and noted that publishers never include her photo on the dust jacket. One prominent African-American author, who has argued that whites should not write about African-American culture, reviewed Galimoto in the New York Times Book Review and said it was an exceptional book. When Karen later met the author, the author was visibly surprised to see that Karen was, in fact, white.

One of Karen’s next books was also written from her experience in the Peace Corps in Malawi. When Africa was Home tells the story of their young son, Peter, who spent his first four years in Africa. Karen realized that, while she and her husband still thought of the United States as home, their young son had no memory of the US and considered Africa to be “home”. At first, Karen wondered if anyone would care about the book, but she felt passionate about the story because she realized it was not so much about her child but rather about the idea of what home is, a concept that every child can relate to.

As is generally the case, especially with new children’s book authors, Karen had no control over who was selected to illustrate the book. She learned the illustrator would be Floyd Cooper, now a prominent children’s book illustrator, but at the time he had only illustrated one book. Karen asked her editor if she could supply photos, but her editor said that artists prefer to have control over their own work. When she received the galleys, she was disappointed that the illustrations were not representative of the Malawi culture, but rather closer to that of Kenya. She was worried that she would lose credibility, but the book received positive reviews. Floyd later who told her he wished he had been able to see her photographs so the illustrations would have been more culturally appropriate.

Later, when Karen wrote A Beach Tail, a simple story about a child exploring the beach, her editor told her that Floyd Cooper was asked to illustrate the book, but chose another book instead. After a few days Floyd called the editor and said he did want to illustrate A Beach Tail. Karen immediately knew that the father and son in the book would be portrayed as African-American. The reviews of this book have praised the relationship between an African-American father and his son, while Karen’s focus was more broadly on the sense of security that children have knowing their parents are watching over them.

Because she has published many more books, Karen is now able to have more of a say in the illustrations. For example, in Four Feet, Two Sandals, about two girls in a Pakistani refugee camp, some of the original illustrations showed the girls without head covers; knowing this would be considered culturally inauthentic, she sent the illustrations back and told the publisher they had to be changed.

Karen’s latest book is Beatrice’s Dream, a photo-biography of a young girl living in the slums of Kibera, the largest slum in Africa. She will soon be publishing Lubuto Means Light, a picture book about a boy in Zambia who has been left homeless by the Aids epidemic. He finds a second home in the Lubuto Library.

You can learn more about Karen and her wonderful books at her website here: http://www.karenlynnwilliams.com/.

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